Anson Dorrance just started his 39th season as head coach of the nation’s most successful collegiate soccer program, the 21-time NCAA championship-winning North Carolina women.
Dorrance also coached the USA to first World Cup title, in 1991, with a team that included April Heinrichs, Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm among six Tar Heel starters. Nearly 60 UNC players have played for the USA. Six players, including Tobin Heath and Meghan Klingenberg, featured on Coach Jill Ellis’ 2015 World Cup-winning team.
In Part 1 of our interview, we asked Dorrance, who took the UNC women’s helm in 1979, to look back on his career -- and address key issues in the women’s college game.
SOCCER AMERICA: What’s a major difference between now and when you started with the women at UNC?
ANSON DORRANCE: Back in those early days – no budgets, you’re struggling to assemble a schedule because so few teams had varsity status.
When I started, I was trying to recruit elite coaches to come into the women’s collegiate game with me but there was this very condescending attitude toward the women’s game back in the day. That’s not the case anymore. Now there are a lot of top coaches selecting the women’s game to jump into.
Obviously, we have to tip our hat to Title IX. Now, yes, you are going to be paid a salary. Yes, you are going to have assistant coaches, and a full scholarship allotment. Everything on the women’s college side shot through roof. The whole landscape has changed. Everything is more professional. The caliber of opposing coaches and their teams has shot to a completely different level.
SA: The players?
ANSON DORRANCE: Back in the old days, there wouldn’t be an elite player on a team outside the Top 10. Now you can go down to a team ranked 150 in the RPI and they’re going to have two or three players on their team whom you would love to have.
The job that the youth coaches are doing is tremendous because there are so many quality players in so many programs across the country.
SA: What’s one of the most significant developments in recent years?
ANSON DORRANCE: This is an interesting wrinkle and at UNC we’ve just benefited from it: The rest of the world has realized that the best player development band for players ages 17 to 22 is the American college game.
The professional clubs in foreign countries, they realize that the best path for their players is not apprenticing on their pro teams, it’s coming to the United States.
People across the world are starting to discover that American college is an extraordinary player development platform. As a result, all these elite foreign players are diving into our college teams, enhancing an already very rich environment with their already wonderful polish.
SA: What qualities do the foreign players bring?
ANSON DORRANCE: The cool about thing the foreign players is that they watch the game. Coach Mark Krikorian’s Florida State created a pipeline in a very intelligent way. He built their great teams with these finds from foreign countries, and as a result, the sophistication of an average Florida State team is off the charts.
SA: UNC’s imports?
ANSON DORRANCE: We have two English freshmen -- Alessia Russo and Lotte Wubben-Moy -- who just arrived because they were playing in the U-19 Euros. And we’re shocked with how we’re going to benefit from these two kids. I can’t believe the sophistication of these two freshmen.
My assistant Damon Nahas, when he was watching this new center back, Lotte Wubben-Moy, who was the captain of the England U-17 team, he looks at me and says, “Oh my gosh, this is like getting a senior captain coming in as a freshman.”
She was the starting center back for Arsenal in the first division as an amateur.
(Photo by Grant Halverson/Courtesy UNC SID)
SA: Why else do you believe college ball is such a strong “player development platform”?
ANSON DORRANCE: That band is when the American player jumps the most. Look at the success of the U.S. players and the Canadians, once they hit their full national team.
Look at the very ordinary results of the United States and Canada at the U-17 level and the sort of inconsistent but better results at the U-20 level, when the college players begin to fold in.
Then look at the jump the Americans and Canadians make once the full team environment occurs. The Canadians are Olympic bronze medalist and we’re the reigning world champions.
SA: Is there anything you miss about the early years?
ANSON DORRANCE: Back in those days, my main job was selling the game. Trying to convince colleges to adopt the women’s game, trying to convince elite coaches that the women’s game is worth coaching in.
Back then, there was a pioneer spirit about being involved in a new beginning -- the development of the women’s game. That pioneering spirit and the sort of people who it gathers are extraordinary people.
As for the players in the early days, the reason it’s so close to home to me right now, is I spoke at Tony DiCicco’s wake and so many of those women were in the room.
The icons, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers … there was a unique, selfless spirit among that group, which I miss.
The spirit of all those people, the coaches and the players, trying to grow the game -- there was a real collegiality. Now I think we’re losing some of that as the game becomes a bit more cut-throat.
SA: Where do think the women’s college game still needs improvement?
ANSON DORRANCE: I would love for more of my colleagues on the women’s side to jump in with the men and support their efforts to try and get this to be a year-round sport.
Unfortunately, not too many of my colleagues are in favor of following the men in their quest, but they should.
We’re 10 years behind the men right now, and the men are fighting for a collegiate identity because everybody is saying don’t go to college, go right into MLS. Because you’re only playing a fall season.
We lost fabulous players in Lindsey Horan [who passed up a scholarship to UNC to sign with Paris Saint-German in 2012] and Mallory Pugh [who left UCLA without ever playing for the Bruins]. Eventually, what’s going to happen, as the salaries for the women’s game improve and the opportunities continue to get better and better, the [pros] are going to become a serious rival for us and I don’t want my game to become obsolete.
SA: Why would the format change make such a difference?
ANSON DORRANCE: If we go to a fall season, a winter break and a spring season, playing into the summer, all kinds of positive things are going to happen.
Our injury rates will drop because we’re playing one match a week. We’re not going to miss class, which will endear us to the presidents of our universities. We’re going to have the ideal mix of training to matches, not like the old tournament culture where you would play more matches than you have training sessions, which is an ass-backwards player development platform.
If you’ve got five training days, one matchday, and a day off, that’s the perfect blend of player development. There are so many benefits to that direction. I’m a little concerned that my colleagues don’t have the vision to see that if we don’t jump in with the men, we’re going to be in their same position 10 to 15 years down the road as the men are in now -- are trying to fight for an identity as development platform.
If we go into together, the men and the women, we’re going to have more power.
SA: How do you feel about Mallory Pugh skipping college soccer at UCLA and signing with the NWSL?
ANSON DORRANCE: I completely supported it, if the income is there and she has an opportunity to make a good living, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that choice, although we have to careful.
Because one of the greatest things about the American sport system is the fact that so many American athletes have the chance to experience college.
I guess to some extent Mal did experience it because she was there for kind of a year at UCLA, so she got a taste. I like the NBA rule that you have to spend one year at college. I kind of like that because I think we should jump-start it.
But I read a book “Every Boy’s Dream.” What the author [Chris Green] was very critical of was the English system. Of course, every 12-, 13, 14-year-old who plays the game at the high level, their dream is to sign a contract with the EPL. So they would bring these boys into these academies, and then with no real education, spit them out when they didn’t make it and they basically had nothing.
It’s system that basically exploits these kids because their dream is to make it to the pros, and when they don’t make it, what are they qualified to do? Absolutely nothing.
What I love about the American sports system is the universities are tied into it. And I genuinely feel like it should be a part of your growth.
So I love the American system, but I think Mal Pugh is an exception. Her extraordinary endorsement deals, the salary she’d be making as a full national team player, and the supplements she gets from also playing in the NWSL, adds up to a wonderful career choice.
Although as a college educator, I would hope she can figure out a way to continue to take correspondence courses and continue to educate herself.
But I totally supported her decision, because I think she can be an icon in the Mia Hamm class. She’s not only a great player, she’s gracious and polite, and thoughtful, and kind, and she sells our game.